COVID-19 has drawn attention to the intense challenges nurses face in their jobs — long hours, emotional stress, significant workloads, and responsibility, to name a few. The undeniable fortitude and endurance of nurses is inspiring. Given their demanding work, nurses need support that prioritizes their physical and mental well-being and helps prevent nurse burnout.
Nurse burnout is a syndrome characterized by chronic stress that goes unmanaged, making it difficult for nurses to carry out their work. Signs of nurse burnout include:
- Feelings of cynicism
- Feelings of ineffectiveness
Anyone can experience a hard day, or even week, at work. However, nurse burnout goes beyond that. It involves an ongoing state of distress that takes an emotional and physical toll on affected individuals. With nurse burnout, nurses feel mentally overextended and depleted of energy. They often respond to their work with increasing detachment and report feeling a lack of efficacy and accomplishment.
Such a loss of confidence and motivation affects nurses’ ability to thrive professionally and personally.
Common Symptoms of Nurse Burnout
Nurses experiencing burnout typically begin to dread their jobs because they feel fatigued, overextended, and underappreciated. Such feelings result in various physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms:
Physical Symptoms of Nurse Burnout
- Problems sleeping
- Greater incidents of illness
- Body pains
- Increase or loss of appetite
Emotional Symptoms of Nurse Burnout
- A sense of helplessness
- Feeling of self-doubt
- Dissatisfaction in life and career
Behavioral Symptoms of Nurse Burnout
- Increased absences from work
- Tendencies to isolate and withdraw
- Poor decision-making
- Substance abuse
Causes of Nurse Burnout
Several factors contribute to nurse burnout, including:
Heavy Workloads and Long Hours
Dealing with high-pressured situations hour after hour makes it especially difficult for nurses to care for patients. Such circumstances leave nurses exhausted and more likely to make mistakes. Mistakes lead to frustration for patients, as well as for nurses, who want to deliver a high standard of care. Furthermore, mistakes can be dangerous or even fatal, and the high stakes involved create significant stress.
Research has consistently shown that longer nurse work hours correlate with less satisfied patients. This has a negative impact on how nurses feel about themselves and their work.
Additionally, heavy workloads and long hours affect nurses’ ability to maintain a work-life balance. A lack of equilibrium in their lives prevents nurses from replenishing their energy and regrouping their thoughts.
Unsupportive Work Environments
When management excludes nurses from decision-making processes, they often feel undervalued. Such exclusions disempower nurses and rob them of the professional autonomy clinicians with extensive training and knowledge deserve.
Ineffective leadership can also result in staffing issues and an overall sense of insufficient support among nurses. Altogether, these elements can decrease satisfaction at work and make nurses more prone to burnout.
A nurse’s ongoing exposure to illness and death can become overwhelming if not properly managed. Nurses treat sick and dying patients; they also provide emotional support to those patients and their families. This can prove very taxing over time and can lead to nurse burnout.
How Crises Fuel Nurse Burnout
Crises, such as COVID-19, exacerbate the rates of burnout among healthcare professionals. The emotional and physical stress created by the greater demands on their time and skills, as well as the increased exposure to death and suffering, deepens the level of distress nurses experience.
A recent study from the Well-Being Index found that approximately 37% to 50% of nurses reported increased and significantly increased workloads due to COVID-19. These increases correlated with high levels of distress among nurses. In fact, approximately 70% of nurses reported high levels of distress due to the workload of the pandemic.
The Importance of Preventing Nurse Burnout
Nurse leaders and healthcare organizations must address nurse burnout if they hope to succeed in today’s healthcare environment. While managing existing nurse burnout requires immediate attention, the ultimate goal should be prevention.
A failure to prevent nurse burnout results in:
- Safety incidents caused by overwhelmed nurses
- Staffing shortfalls caused by poor retention
- Dissatisfied patients who received low-quality care
Preventing these problems will also prevent their potentially more serious consequences.
The Impact of Nurse Burnout
Nurse burnout harms patients and, in turn, healthcare organizations. The distress nurses experience hinders their performance, which can reduce the level of care they deliver and even put patients in danger.
For example, disengaged, exhausted nurses can inadvertently administer incorrect medication or dosages, deliver impersonal care, or record important medical data inaccurately. Nurse burnout also influences how well nurses collaborate with their peers and convey information to other clinicians.
Nurses experiencing burnout struggle to work efficiently or effectively in teams and less frequently mentor other nurses. Nurse burnout also influences how often nurses call in sick. The symptomatic fatigue and frustration of nurse burnout can result in a lack of good judgment in patient care and a poor bedside manner as well.
Feelings of cynicism or inefficacy may lead nurses to show insufficient sensitivity or compassion toward their patients. Nurses may fail to personalize care, and patients may find them indifferent and uncaring.